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Council may hire former judge for Fisk investigation

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Springfield City Council is considering a new motion that would bring on a retired judge in the investigation into alleged ethics violations by Councilwoman Jan Fisk.

Fisk, who has said she will not seek re-election in 2020, has faced multiple allegations by whistleblower Linda Simkins, a retired litigation paralegal and community activist who has sought to remove the councilwoman from office. Fisk, according to Simkins’ complaints, allegedly did not disclose the potential for personal gain in financial contracts with the city — related to her stake in J. Howard Fisk Limousines Inc. — and private interest in legislation regarding Galloway Village blight. Additionally, one complaint alleges the councilwoman has unpaid taxes on property she owns with her husband and son.

The city first hired St. Louis attorney Kevin O’Keefe as outside counsel on the case, and now, council is scheduled to vote at its Oct. 7 meeting on whether to bring on retired local lawyer and judge Kenneth Thompson as a hearing examiner, according to a news release. Thompson, according to the resolution going before council Monday, would be authorized to conduct a hearing and “make written findings of fact and conclusions of law as to a determination concerning the propriety of the conduct of Councilmember Fisk, and to file such findings and conclusions with the City Council for such further action as the council may determine.”

Reached this morning, O’Keefe said he and Thompson would “play significantly different roles,” should council hire the hearing examiner.

“My role is to assist the council in formulating and presenting its case under the city code,” O’Keefe said, noting Springfield City Attorney Rhonda Lewsader and her staff recused themselves from the case. “The hearing examiner is to serve as a judge to hear that case.”

If council passes the resolution, city spokeswoman Cora Scott said Thompson would be paid $225 per hour for his services. O’Keefe on Sept. 24 submitted his findings to the city, indicating allegations related to the nondisclosure of a city contract with Fisk Limousines should be examined further. Thompson dismissed the other complaints, according to documents provided by the city.

“It is axiomatic that the appearance of impropriety can be as damaging to public confidence in government as actual misconduct,” O’Keefe wrote in his findings. “A cautious legislator leans toward transparency and disclosure of even marginally problematic circumstances so as to avoid risking public confidence due to misunderstanding or nondisclosure. Fellow council members can rightly feel – and express – disappointment and chagrin with conduct that falls short of the mark.”

A request to refer the matter to a hearing examiner was signed by all council members — minus Fisk — on Sept. 24. The request indicates the Missouri Ethics Commission found grounds to support potential violations of city code, specifically that Fisk has a financial interest in Fisk Limousines, which conducts business with the city.

O’Keefe previously was hired by council members in 2015, when former Councilwoman Kristi Fulnecky faced a challenge to her ability to serve on council over tax issues, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. Fulnecky resigned in 2018, citing a move outside Springfield city limits.

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